An Agency Assessment Checklist
A wise young person I know (my son, actually) once said, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Certainly truer words were never spoken in the context of grantseeking and grantsmanship:
Just because you have the ability to seek grant funding from a specific foundation, corporation, or government funder doesn’t mean the opportunity is a good fit for your organization.
We’re accustomed to asking, “How well does what we’re setting out to do match the mission of the funder?” But there’s more to good stewardship in the grants arena than simply finding a good mission match. And there are more questions we need to be asking, too, to ensure that our best intentions keep us on track.
One of the most popular, thought-provoking checklists we include in our grantsmanship trainings across the country is one called: “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” More than a few grant practitioners have shared that this worksheet has, literally, saved their jobs if not their nonprofit from disastrous consequences.
We can’t prove it, but it’s likely that these grant practitioners have felt themselves beleaguered by constituents (board members, executive staff, and so on) who, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm, can’t understand why the grant practitioner can’t just “go out and get a grant” for Project A, Project R, or Project X.
Those of us who have been at this for a while know that this is what we call “chasing the dollars” – the very antithesis of mission-centered grantsmanship. Developing the plans and the relationships and the proposals necessary for success in grantseeking takes time, lots of it. And not all funding opportunities are equal in terms of their potential payback for the time invested.
The questions posed by the “Is This Opportunity Right For Us?” checklist help us maintain that all-important mission-centered, clear-eyed, and clear-headed stance toward our grants research and the grantmakers with whom we choose to invest our valuable resources of time, energy, and connection.
A simple recommendation
When I teach the “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” checklist, I always start by stating that these questions didn’t just come from nowhere. Each one, I point out, represents a grants horror story or near-horror story from a nonprofit or community organization that failed to ask the right questions, at the right time – that became too focused on getting the money and lost sight of common sense and its own best interests.
Our simple recommendation:
Once you’ve identified a promising funding opportunity (or had an eager constituent bring one to your attention), look at it closely through the lens of the questions on the “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” checklist.
Be honest! If your honest answers cause concern in any areas, don’t ignore these concerns or brush them under the table. Deal with them, right now, up front. Sometimes “dealing with them” may mean saying, “No, thank you, this won’t work for us,” and walking away. If your organization is truly mission-centered, you and your team will know when walking away from a seemingly attractive funding opportunity is the best, most empowered choice.
Here, then, are the checklist questions – with some commentary and a couple horror stories thrown in for good measure. Reader, beware!
1. Is the purpose of the funding opportunity compatible with our mission, vision, values?
Here’s that straight-out-of-the-box question whose answer, one would think, separates the grant pros from the amateurs. Without mission match, we don’t have a match at all. This one makes so much common sense it hurts.
Yet common sense doesn’t explain why major foundations across the country still routinely report that, despite all the time and energy and money they pour into their public-information efforts – websites, community meetings, newsletters, and so on – a full 75% of the proposals they receive bear no resemblance to anything they’ve ever expressed an interest in funding.
Makes us grants program officers go “Hmmm …”
2. Is something similar to this already part of our long-range or strategic plan? If so, how high a priority has it been given? If not, is it something we should consider incorporating into our strategic plan?
This question gets to the heart of mission-centered vs. dollars-chasing. Where does the inspiration, the impetus for a new program or service idea come from? Does it flow naturally and easily from our own best understanding of what it is we’re here to do in the world – our mission? Or is it something we’re making up in order to take advantage of an attractive funding opportunity?
And even if it is in fact something that has shown up on our radar screen, is it a significant enough match with our strategic vision to warrant investing the resources into developing a competitive proposal? Or was it really just a “blip,” somebody’s momentary good idea – here today, gone tomorrow?
3. Is our organization eligible to apply? If not, can we partner with an eligible agency?
Here’s another question that falls squarely in the common-sense camp – separating the pros from the amateurs. If you’re working for a tribal agency and the RFP is open only to institutions of higher education, you’ve just bumped into a closed door. Maybe. Or . . . maybe not.
Grant veterans know that this is one area where creative collaboration can really make a difference. Connecting with an agency that is eligible to apply, even when yours isn’t, can keep that door open and may well result in a terrific grant-funded collaboration.
4. Is the deadline a realistic one, given the resources and time available?
Sometimes you just have to turn and walk away.
There are no hard and fast rules for this one. Whether a deadline is “realistic” depends on a whole slew of factors – including how much advance work is already in place to support the proposal development process. In my experience, nobody is served by submitting a half-baked proposal, “just for practice” or on the off-chance that it will fly. Funders keep files, and we have long memories. Turning in a less-than-strong effort because the deadline wasn’t realistic is short-sighted at best.
5. Is the amount available through this opportunity compatible with our funding needs?
True story: In my grantwriting days I once worked with a nonprofit that was seeking about $5,000 for a community project. One board member was pressing us to submit a grant proposal to a very large foundation whose minimum funding level was $100,000.
“They’ll never notice,” this board member said with a straight face. “We’ll fly in so low we won’t even show up on their radar screen.”
What, and they’ll accidentally write the check and never know it?
The opposite dynamic happens all too often too: A grant proposal comes in requesting $1.2 million to construct a building (often from a nonprofit that the funder has never heard of before) – when the most that funder has ever awarded in a single grant is $25,000.
6. Are we comfortable with the mission, vision, and values of the funding organization? Is there any potential ethical conflict between our mission, vision, and values and the source of this funder’s philanthropic dollars?
The grants community has been buzzing with conversation about this controversial question – which would be a great topic for a future article. This is an especially important question to ask when contemplating funding from a corporation whose products or services might not be in alignment with the values for which your organization stands. A tough prospect in this post-corporate-merger-mania era.
7. How competitive will the funding process be?
Generally, I avoid using the word “competitive” in the context of good grantsmanship, preferring instead to focus on collaborative, enough-for-all thinking. Here, though, it’s worth asking the question: What, really, are our chances of winning an award in this funding round? And, is it worth the time and resources it would take?
You always want to make sure your ducks are in nice, neat rows for your proposals – they just need to be all the more so if the process is highly competitive. A funding process that is likely to attract 50 proposals and fund 30 of them (a 60% funding rate) is a different prospect from one that will attract 300 and ultimately fund 15 (a funding rate of just 5%).
8. How complex or involved are the requirements for supporting documentation? And do we realistically have the time and resources to meet those requirements?
Anyone who’s pulled together a major federal or state proposal knows what this question means. Sometimes the required attachments, appendices, and certifications can literally outweigh the proposal narrative and financials. Paying attention up front to the time it will take to meet these requirements is a wise reality check. Pulling this kind of documentation together can be costly, not only in terms of time, but often in outright cash expenses when you calculate in the cost of site surveys, public polls, community meetings, environmental assessments, and so on.
9. Are we prepared to live up to the terms of a grant award from this agency?
This is the “what are the strings?” question. And there are always strings – expectations of the funder’s that must be met. It’s awfully easy to become so excited about the funding prospect that we forget to look carefully at the strings – which is a little like signing a prenup without reading it in your rush to the altar. The terms and conditions can include reporting requirements, accounting or fiscal responsibility, evaluation requirements, and certifications and assurances of various sorts.
Don’t make the mistake of tossing these all off as “boilerplate” and sleep-walking through them! One agency I know of neglected to read carefully the Americans with Disabilities Act-related requirements of accepting a federal award, and was later found to be out of compliance on what they thought was a minor technicality. Their choice: Give back the whole grant award – including every dollar they had already spent – or spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to move to an ADA-compliant building. Ouch.
The Bottom Line
When all is said and done, the questions on the “Is This Opportunity Right For Us?” checklist are about making sure we are indeed acting as good stewards in our grant practice. The final two checklist questions bring this bottom line into focus. They are:
- Overall, how well does this funding opportunity fit with our mission, vision, and values?
- Do we have the resources needed to prepare a technically qualified, highly competitive, and timely proposal?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and there are few if any rules to guide us through this territory.
Just because we can – doesn’t mean we should.
What it does mean is that we must go into any new funding relationship with our eyes wide open – and our feet firmly grounded in the best interests of our organization, our cause, and the community we serve.
(c) Copyright 2016 Maryn Boess. All rights reserved.
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by Maryn Boess – Founder/Chief Instructor, GrantsMagic U